Life in The Huntington

Almoloya Drive today
Photos by Rich Schmitt/Staff Photographer

LA Muralist Hugo Ballin and His Actress Wife Mabel Lived in the Palisades

By MICHAEL OLDHAM | Contributing Writer

On North Almoloya Drive in The Huntington, there is a home that once belonged to a famous, long-forgotten Hollywood couple.

Mabel Ballin, born in Philadelphia with the name Mabel Croft in 1887, was a famous silent screen actress. Hugo Ballin, born in New York City in 1879, was a director and producer—all inside the silent film era. The couple married in 1917.

The year 1917 marked a new chapter in the lives of both Mabel and Hugo—not only because it was their matrimonial year.

That year, the five-foot, three-inch Mabel began her moving pictures career with short comedic films such as “Bobby, Boy Scout” and “When Bobby Broke his Arm,” both part of a popular serial that starred actor Bobby Connelly.

The year 1917 would also be when Hugo started his Hollywood career working for legendary studio boss Samuel Goldwyn. That year, Ballin earned credit as a production designer on “The Cinderella Man” and “Nearly Married.”

Hugo was a painter and muralist before joining Hollywood. He was once asked why he stopped painting to become a film director.

“Because even a great painting is seen only by about 60,000 people in a year, and the same number see a good motion picture in one hour,” he replied.

Hugo utilized his multiple talents while taking on many job titles for Goldwyn Pictures in New Jersey. Besides director, he worked as an art director and production designer.

In 1920, the Ballins had moved to Los Angeles and Hugo formed his own movie production company, Hugo Ballin Productions.

Hugo had definitive ideas of how to go about making a successful movie.

“I do think that the biggest thing about a picture is not what is said or done, but how it is said or done,” Ballin once stated. “And the first rule is never make a picture because you see it through the eyes of a success. Imitation is the sincerest flattery and the worse bore. The second is, never let what the public is going to say worry you while you are making a picture. Wait until after they say it.”

Hugo began to place Mabel in the films he produced. He directed the brown-haired, brown-eyed Mabel in such flicks as “Jane Eyre” of 1921, “Married People” of the following year and “Vanity Fair” in 1923.

The movie couple, for their time, were progressive in their film collaborations. For a 1922 edition of Motion Picture Magazine, Hugo told writer Malcolm H. Oettinger that he and Mabel “discuss all of our stories together, before turning a single crank. Mabel helps me immeasurably in all of the work.”

Hugo
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

And for this same 1922 joint interview, Mabel voiced her frustrations with the type of movie roles she had been playing all too often.

“I was spotted at birth as an ingénue,” Mabel told Oettinger. “The thing has stuck to me pretty closely. I’ve been the persecuted heroine, the ditched country lass, the betrayed flower girl, all with astounding regularity. All through my cellulife, I’ve been more cinema than sinning. And it is hardly necessary to add that I hate it. I yearn to burst out in a picture that grants me two grains of common sense, at least.”

Mabel also told Oettinger that the most difficult part of being a movie actress was deciding “what sort of pictures to make.” By the mid-1920s, the bobbed haired beauty no longer had to decide which film project to pick; she walked away from Hollywood in 1926.

And by the time the Ballins took up residency in Pacific Palisades, Hugo too had left his director’s chair and other Hollywood job titles behind. Though Hugo would dabble in the movie business a couple of times in the future, he walked away from his full-time work in pictures in 1927.

At least as early as the 1930s, Hugo and Mabel were fully settled into life inside their Almoloya Drive home in The Huntington. The couple’s Spanish Colonial Revival house was built in 1928. It still stands today, with several rooms and nearly 5,000 square feet of interior.

The Ballins’ house had a work studio—a space where Hugo would create his art, for after he left Hollywood, Hugo had circled back to his artistic roots. He’d returned to his earlier career as a muralist.

Mabel
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Hugo’s local work as an artist included murals at the Griffith Observatory. Ballin also created a 17-foot medallion of Pallas Athena that was featured over the entrance to the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.

His murals were also painted on the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles Times building and other notable structures.

Mabel and Hugo were living on Almoloya Drive in 1956 when Hugo passed away. Mabel passed away in 1958.

They both rest at the city of Santa Monica Woodlawn Cemetery, Mausoleum & Mortuary.

Michael Oldham is the author of “The Valentino Formula.” He can be reached at hollywoodlandings@sbcglobal.net.